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Tech

From...

World class: Best products of 1998

June 5, 1998
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EDT

by the PC World editors

(IDG) -- What's the best sports team? The one that beats all the others, year after year. The best investment? The one that grows the most over time. How about the best movie? This year it was the one that featured the coolest special effects. (Hint: There was a very large boat in it.)

So what makes a PC product the best in its class? To answer that question, PC World's editors, testers, and contributors examined the entire gamut of products that have appeared in our pages over the past year. The result: our 16th annual World Class Awards, honoring the top hardware, software, and Web products in the PC realm.

In our search for the best, we looked at four factors: performance, value, consistency, and innovation. Some products shone in all four categories. With others, one or two traits were enough to catapult them to the top.

Some companies that made the best products last year have made those products even better. Kudos go to Intuit for its latest versions of "Quicken" and "TurboTax"; to Symantec for the newest "Norton AntiVirus"; and to Dell for its Pentium II line of Dimension PCs. Several other products that led the pack a year ago, like "Office 97", are also still the best.

Cool new stuff? Voice recognition is finally worth talking about, thanks to Dragon "NaturallySpeaking". Digital cameras are easier to use with the advent of Sony's Mavica MVC-FD7, and PDAs like the REX PC Companion now come in sizes as small as a business card.

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But you won't read much here about ADSL, Net PCs, or USB, among other hyped technologies. High-speed Web access, no-fuss computers, and easy-to-install peripherals are still on the horizon. And even though Microsoft still makes the best products in several categories, the past 12 months have not been kind to the software giant, making it our runaway choice for "Loser of the Year."

For now, though, let this article be your guide to the best PC products and companies. In some cases we've named runners-up where we thought more than one product deserved attention. If your opinions differ from ours, let us know. And tell us what you thought of "Titanic."

Most Promising Hardware Newcomer

Sure, it's not as fast as today's top-of-the-line systems. It typically comes with limited RAM, a relatively slow processor, and a basic graphics card that can't run today's latest 3D games. And that tempting price usually doesn't include a monitor. Still, we're pleased that companies like Acer, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM spent part of their time this year building quality PCs that sell for around $1000.

Consumers are happy too. No wonder: How many people really want to spend $2500 on a system that will probably be outdated in six months? If all you want to do is send e-mail, work on documents, and browse the Net, a cheap PC might be the ticket. Is it a gimmick? A flash in the pan? Time will tell. But for bravely serving a market where profits aren't so grand, the makers of the sub-$1000 PC get our salute.

Computer Essentials

Best Business Desktop PC

- Dell Dimension XPS D Series

Like scandal in the White House, Dell has been a virtual fixture atop our power desktops chart this year. By keeping prices low and technology high--64MB of SDRAM, roomy 8GB hard drive, AGP graphics, and more--Dell has made its Dimension XPS D line an exceptional value.

RUNNER-UP: Micron Millennia Series. This line is fast, support keeps improving, and Micron has pioneered the use of some parts, like Zip drives, as standard.

Best Home Desktop PC

- Gateway G Series

Last year around the holidays, Gateway got our attention with its budget G5 series, earning Best Buys from November 1997 to February 1998. These Pentium MMX systems deliver enough power for most homes and sometimes come with an ink jet printer--all for around $1500. Now the G6 series brings power and value to the top of the charts.

RUNNER-UP: Dell Dimension XPS D Series. For home buyers, Dell bundles its powerful D series with features like a subwoofer and Microsoft "Home Essentials 98."

Best Sub-$1000 PC

- IBM Aptiva E Series

Think all IBM PCs are pricey? Think again. The $699 Aptiva E16 (without a monitor, which starts at $199) isn't built for speed--it comes with an AMD K6-166 chip and 16MB of RAM--but the well-designed package includes a 56-kbps modem, an ATI Rage II 3D graphics card, and Lotus "SmartSuite 97." Its faster sibling, the E26, has also dropped well below $1000.

RUNNER-UP: Compaq Presario 2200 Series. Arguably the first sub-$1000 PCs, Compaq's Presario 2240 and siblings deliver high quality at low prices.

Best Notebook PC

- Dell Inspiron Series

You want speed? Dell's got speed. The company has an uncanny knack for building really fast notebooks. The $3199 Inspiron 3200 D266XT is the quickest of the bunch. It's sturdy and has a brilliant 13.3-inch active-matrix screen. If only it came standard with a modem, we'd never stop talking about it.

RUNNER-UP: Gateway Solo 2300 Series. They stalked the top of our power notebooks chart from December 1997 to March 1998, and now they're looking to lay claim to the budget chart. These babies use a variety of CPUs to match any pocketbook, and their batteries keep going and going.

Best Monitor

- Iiyama VisionMaster 450

Big, bright, and beautiful--that's the VisionMaster 450. This $765 display is the best argument yet for moving up to 19 inches. Its sharp text and vibrant colors stand out, and with the extra viewing area, you can see even more of your spreadsheets, Web pages, and other documents.

RUNNER-UP: Mitsubishi Diamond Pro Series. These monitors consistently impress us with their superior picture. Prices range from $1649 for the 21-inch Diamond Pro 1000 to $549 for the 17-inch Diamond Pro 87TXM.

Best Graphics Board

- STB Velocity 128

It's been a big year for combination 2D/3D graphics boards. The $129 Velocity 128, with its groundbreaking nVidia Riva 128 graphics chip, proved that you can have both fast 2D performance and good 3D image quality. And with its price falling, it's the ideal choice.

RUNNERS-UP: Creative Labs 3D Blaster VooDoo2 and Diamond Monster 3D II. These 8MB 3D-only cards ($229 and $249, respectively) are the best for playing 3D games on the PC.

Best Sound Board

- Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold

For the sixth straight year, a Sound Blaster brings home the gold--and this year the gold is literal. The $149 Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold appeals to audiophiles with 64-voice wavetable MIDI, a great selection of audio software, and even gold-plated ports for better output. The 4MB of MIDI samples from E-mu Systems produce superior realism, and gamers can rest easy knowing the card is truly Sound Blaster compatible.

RUNNER-UP: Diamond Monster Sound M80.

Creative Labs beware. This $99 PCI-based card may herald a changing of the guard. It has impressive positional 3D audio effects and 32-voice MIDI playback.

Best Hard Drive

- Maxtor 8.4GB DiamondMax 2160

With so much important stuff living on your hard drive these days--apps and files, cookies, cached Web pages, even captured video--you need a hard drive you can trust. Our favorite is this $279 unit (see "Godzilla-Size Hard Drives"). It's roomy (8.4GB), great for multimedia apps, and backed by Maxtor's support with its stellar reputation.

RUNNER-UP: Seagate Medalistpro 6451. If you can do with a little less space, Seagate's 6.4GB drive will save you about $50. It's an outstanding general-purpose drive; complete installation instructions are printed right on it.

Best CD-ROM Drive

- Plextor UltraPleX PX-32CSi

In practical terms, 32X isn't much faster than 24X. But if you spend your days scanning CD-ROM databases, every bit of speed helps. Plextor's $249 SCSI CD-ROM drive is the fastest of this company's excellent line. For those who need extra speed now and can't wait for DVD prices to drop, the upgrade is worth it.

PC Peripherals

Best Personal Printer

- Epson Stylus Color 800

Here's a case where we recommend you spend a little more to get the best. Epson's $299 Stylus Color 800 costs more than some of our other top-rated printers, but it has a long history of quality. It's fast, easy to use, and produces color photos that are among the sharpest you'll see from any printer.

RUNNER-UP: Hewlett-Packard DeskJet 722C. With its laserlike text and crisp color graphics--on plain paper, yet--HP's well-designed $299 ink jet is a fine choice for small and home offices.

Best Modem

- 3Com U.S. Robotics 56K Faxmodem External

Snicker if you must at the "56K" in the product name, but 3Com will do right in upgrading this speedy, reliable modem. The company says if you've already bought one, you'll get a free upgrade to the universal 56-kbps standard, even if 3Com has to send you a new modem. So you can feel good about this $180 device.

RUNNER-UP: Diamond Supraexpress 56I. Diamond's $119 internal K56flex modem is a snap to install, and it's packed with features like voice mail and support for Caller ID and speakerphones.

Best Input Device

- Logitech MouseMan+

People's hands are shaped the same wherever you go. So can anyone explain all the different shapes of ergonomic mice? In our opinion, Logitech gets it right with the $60 MouseMan+. It's designed for comfort, with a built-in wheel for scrolling through Windows 95 applications, and it's easy to program.

Best Scanner

- Visioneer PaperPort OneTouch

Aside from free-falling prices, it's been difficult to find anything new and exciting about flatbed scanners. Until now, that is. Visioneer's new $249 scanner has a neat set of buttons that allows you to scan, fax, copy, and print. The company also makes the best software for adjusting, filing, and annotating scanned images.

Best DVD Drive

- Creative Labs PC-DVD Encore Dxr2

Want in on the new multimedia? Check out the $300 PC-DVD Encore. The 2X DVD drive can read both CD-Recordable and CD-Rewritable discs and spins CD-ROMs at a fast 20X. The media card produces superior MPEG-2 video and uses a loopback cable to eliminate compatibility snafus with existing graphics cards.

Best Removable Storage Drive

- SyQuest SyJet 1.5GB EIDE

The $299 SyJet's cartridges hold more data than any removable media we've tested this year. The drive is fast, easy to install, and at 5 cents per megabyte of storage, a terrific bargain. This is the solution for your business PC.

RUNNER-UP: Syquest Sparq 1.0GB. The budget-conscious user may opt instead for this speedy $199 drive, which uses 1GB cartridges that cost but a trifling $39 each.

Best Recordable CD-ROM Drive

- HP CD-Writer Plus 7200i

Record all your favorite songs on a CD, then record over them. This $499 internal CD-Rewritable drive lets you record repeatedly over the same CD. We found it fast, and easy to install (see "Cut Your Own CDs," June).

RUNNER-UP: Teac 4X12 External CD Recorder. If you don't need to rewrite CDs, this fast $549 CD-Recordable SCSI drive is the one for you.

Best Personal Digital Assistant/Palmtop

- 3Com Palm III

The Newton may be dead, but the PalmPilot grows stronger by the day. 3Com's PDA streamlines calendar and address book management and provides great connectivity to desktop PCs. The new $399 Palm III ups the ante with a sleeker case, more RAM, and other refinements.

RUNNER-UP: Psion Series 5. Combining software that's better than Windows CE with a notebooklike QWERTY keyboard, Psion's $499 unit is a powerhouse among palmtops.

Best Digital Camera

- Sony Digital Mavica MVC-FD7

Finally, storing digital images and transferring them to your PC is as simple as popping out a floppy. That's because Sony's $799 Mavica uses standard 3.5-inch disks to hold your pictures--just one of the innovations that earn it our award. The images it captures are top-notch, and the camera is, well, a snap to use.

Best Wireless Communications Product

- Nokia 9000i Communicator

It's a cell phone, a fax machine, and a handheld computer--all three in one device. Flip open the $999 Nokia Communicator, and you'll find an 8MB PDA complete with a regulation-style QWERTY keyboard, a 640 by 200 LCD screen, and a Web browser. It's pricey, but definitely a road warrior's dream.

Best Gadget

- Rolodex Electronics REX PC Companion

Credit Rolodex Electronics with creating a brand-new category of pocket-size computers: the fingertop. This ingenious little $179 gizmo crams all your personal information into a device the size of a regular business card. It's incredibly portable and fun to use.

Product of the Year

Intel Pentium II

Intel's flagship chip proves that power doesn't have to come at a high price. In less than a year, the Pentium II revved up from 233 MHz to 400 MHz. Couple a 400-MHz PII chip with the new 100-MHz system bus, and you get machines that are 67 percent faster than PCs powered by lowly Pentium 233s (see "400-MHz Pentium IIs: The Great Leap Forward," June). At the same time, the cost of a PII chip has dropped drastically, as Intel felt the heat from AMD and Cyrix. The result: desktop PCs that look and feel like workstations. That's why the Pentium II is our Best Product of 1998.

Loser of the Year

Microsoft

That pie in the face last February wasn't the only creaming that Bill Gates took this year. Microsoft's flagship applications--Office 97, Money 98, Internet Explorer 4.0--bred more bugs than a Florida swamp. Every week seemed to bring news of yet another IE 4.0 security hole. Windows 97 turned into Windows 98 (and still hadn't shipped at press time), and NT 5.0 was put off until 1999.

A U.S. Department of Justice action forced the company to alter some of its business practices, while a consumer backlash had users pining for non-Microsoft alternatives (Linux, anyone?). The only place the software titan didn't get hit was in the wallet--the company racked up big profits. And its products are still best of breed in most categories, having outlived most competitors.

Business Software

Best Operating System

- Microsoft Windows 95

It's not perfect, but for now more software and peripherals are available for Windows 95 than for any other OS, a key advantage to most users. While Windows 98 will offer refinements, the oft-delayed Windows NT 5.0 is likely to be Win 95's heir.

Best Application Suite

- Microsoft 'Office 97'

"Office 97" has taken its share of knocks--for everything from file-format hassles to silly cartoon-character help. Still, this suite boasts the strongest lineup--"Word" and "Excel" are tops in the two most important categories. "Office" comes in versions for everyone from home users to small business owners. Prices range from $499 to $799.

Best Word Processor

- Microsoft 'Word 97'

The race among the big three word processors is close, but Word maintains an edge. First-rate editing, extensive customization, and the best Web-page creation help make it our top choice for word-slinging. It's $339 in stand-alone form.

Best Spreadsheet

- Microsoft 'Excel 97'

Microsoft "Office's" spreadsheet (available separately for $339) retains a narrow but noticeable lead over Lotus "1-2-3" and Corel "Quattro Pro". It impresses us with snazzy tools for tracking changes and dressing up data with fancy formatting.

Best Database Software

- Microsoft 'Access 97'

Creating a database and extracting data aren't so hard with "Access 97". Its querying tools feature the most options, and its on-screen help is a godsend. We especially like the way this $339 product integrates with other Office apps and with the Web.

Best Personal Information Manager/ Contact Manager

- Lotus 'Organizer 97 GS'

The spiral-bound interface of the $79 "Organizer GS" is ideal for anyone making the move from a paper planner. Simple linking options let you cross-reference a calendar, address book, and other data.

RUNNER-UP: "Goldmine 4.0." Tight-knit teams of salespeople will thrive on this $169 contact manager's forecasting, telemarketing, and project management.

Best Utility Software

- Network Associates 'Nuts & Bolts'

Peter Norton's famous tool kit has met its match in the $49 "Nuts & Bolts". Cheaper than Norton "Utilities", it's a top-notch set of essential tools, including some that Peter left out.

RUNNER-UP: Mijenix "Powerdesk Utilities 98." A huge improvement on Windows' Explorer, this $40 software has what you need to manage all your files.

Best Antivirus Software

- Symantec Norton AntiVirus 4.0

Okay Peter, stand proud again. Your $50 antivirus program outperformed all the other packages we tested at finding and eliminating viruses. Using it is simple, but it comes with good docs anyway.

RUNNER-UP: Inoculan "Antivirus for Windows 95." Like "Norton AntiVirus 4.0", this $40 app was near perfect at rooting out viruses and has an intuitive interface.

Best Accounting Software

- Peachtree 'Complete Accounting Plus Time and Billing'

One of the best things about Peachtree's $249 multiuser accounting package (now version 6.0) is the ease with which it lets you customize reports. It also wins points for its time and billing modules.

RUNNER-UP: "Quickbooks Pro." It doesn't have all the tools that Peachtree does, but this $199 program, designed for one user, is ideal for a home-based business.

Most Promising Software Newcomer

- Dragon 'NaturallySpeaking'

Admit it. You've chuckled at the idea of talking to your PC. "Open document, take a letter, don't give me any lip." And until recently, the ribbing was well deserved. But "NaturallySpeaking" from Dragon Systems has turned voice recognition from a joke into a viable way of interacting with your PC. It uses continuous speech recognition so you can talk at a normal pace instead...of...like...this. We found the program so accurate, using it was a bit scary--in a "2001: A Space Odyssey" kind of way.

Mind you, an innovative tool like this isn't cheap, nor is using it a walk in the park. The Deluxe version costs $695. It lets you dictate into almost any application and gives you the best recognition. (More spartan versions cost $109 to $229.) To get it working its best, you must spend time training the software to recognize your voice. You may feel a little silly reading stories to your PC, but the quality time you spend now will mean higher productivity later.

Graphics Software

Best Presentation Graphics Software

- Lotus 'Freelance Graphics 97'

Whether for transparencies or a Web show, no package provides more help (part of SmartSuite, or on its own for $339).

Best Business Graphics Software

- 'Visio 5.0'

Drag-and-drop editing and intuitive tools make this do-it-all the best in its class. It's $149 for the Standard version.

RUNNER-UP: Micrografx "Graphics Suite 2.0." "FlowCharter 7" is a jewel for creating diagrams. The $350 suite also comes with software for the artist in you, including "Picture Publisher" and "Simply 3D".

Best Desktop Publishing Software

- Adobe 'PageMaker 6.5'

Adobe "PageMaker" effortlessly switches between desktop publishing and online electronic publishing. But keep in mind: With a steep $550 price and a steeper learning curve, it's really for pros.

RUNNER-UP: Microsoft "Publisher 98." It's just $99 and designed so anyone can use it. With wizards to help you create everything from business cards to Web pages, "Publisher 98" is best for individuals and small businesses.

Best Draw Software

- 'CorelDraw 8'

Corel's $480 flagship product is filled with fonts, photos, clip art, 3D graphics software, a photo editor, and more. Version 8 adds Web features, a more customizable interface, and nice wizards.

RUNNER-UP: Micrografx "Windows Draw 6.0 Premiere Edition Print Studio." When it comes to bang-for-the-buck, this $50 draw package has no peer.

Best Image/Photo Editing Software

- Adobe 'Photoshop 5.0'

The $699 Photoshop is still the choice for making image magic. It works best on a powerful PC.

RUNNERS-UP: Adobe "Photodeluxe 2.0" and Micrografx "Photomagic 6.0."

These powerful, easy-to-use apps cost $49 each.

Best 3D Graphics Software

- MetaCreations 'Bryce 3D'

Whether or not you're an artist, the $199 Bryce 3D is an affordable way to create realistic scenes.

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